The path to today's smartphone has many branches: the Bell system, for certain, but also large government contracts, a grassroots networking protocol, and many clever architects and programmers. These developer communities can either be independent or in the service of the computing giants: Adobe, Google, Microsoft, and of course Apple. The iPhone proved to be a breakout device for many reasons.
While we talk about cell phones with the emphasis on “phones,” the smartphone is far from being an extrapolation from Bell's original device. The iPhone's naming convention makes a certain amount of sense, but it's not really a phone: Person-to-person voice communication is maybe a fifth of its value. Calling it an ultraportable computer would not have worked; I defer to the marketing genius behind this extraordinarily successful product. But the fact remains that the smartphone has much more to do with computing than with traditional voice.
Even the term “smartphone” needs to be defined carefully. The original Amazon Kindle, for example, allowed only rudimentary Web access, eschewing the Swiss Army knife approach in favor of intense concentration on one core activity: reading. Amazon is routinely secretive about competitive issues and thus has given no firm indication of how many readers are out there. Given the massive software sales—Kindle titles outsell all print editions on the earth's biggest bookstore—hardware sales have to be robust. The Kindle is, ...